Cities and floods

Thames Gateway model

What will be built in the Thames Gateway? Will it be more like Broadacre City or Carpet City?

The Thames Gateway is an ideological battlefield. It is the stage upon which all architects, urban designers, theorists and doom-mongers can project their hopes, fears, visions and nightmares.

Not since the heady days of the Docklands development has their been a project of this scope in the capital. There is a tantalising prospect to make a new London, build a bright new future, and reject the mistakes of the past.

Thames Gateway has also become a massive investment opportunity for speculative house builders, property tycoons, and real estate magnates, clamouring for a piece of the baitball with all the decorum of a feeding frenzy.

With over 160,000 new homes proposed, over an area of 450 square kilometres, already home to 1.6 million people, the proposed density of the Thames Gateway development is actually very low. As the recent research by Chora puts it:

"The Thames Gateway is a complex urban field. It is 9 times the size of Barcelona, has the same population as Berlin and the equivalent density to Los Angeles."

But what kind of landscape will be created in the Gateway? In a recent Buidling Design 'debate' article (Is the Thames Gateway project a busted flush?), Grossmax's Eelco Hooftman eloquently busts the hyperbole of what is really happening in East London.

"The Thames Gateway is predominantly treated as an overspill housing scheme when it should really be about restructuring a landscape in a dynamic flood plain which considers flood defence, water storage, waste recycling, carbon footprint, ecological corridors, infrastructure and landscape frameworks.

It should be an architect-free zone until such a proposition is on the ground. We are heading for a diaspora of speculative toy town sink estates, a potent mixture of low-rise and high tide. We have dull, shifty opportunism when what we need is a long-term vision where imagination can take hold.

Large-scale landscape planning of any reasonable and positive kind is shamefully absent here. In fact, where is the plan at all? The proposition for a Green Grid across the Thames Valley is an anorexic, token gesture for a straightjacket landscape at odds with natural dynamics - what Thames Gateway needs is an altogether more voluptuous, ecological Wonderbra!"

If the secret "project" of Manhattan was the "culture of congestion", then the secret project at work here across the floodplains of the Thames Estuary is the culture of suburban sprawl.

Thames Gateway planning area

Trying to understand what is actually proposed for the Thames Gateway is a difficult undertaking. It encompasses a large number of projects over a massive area, with well known elements such as the Olympic park in Stratford directing attention away from the real folly of the Thames Gateway - the massive suburbanisation of the Thames Estuary.

As the introduction catalogue for the 2006 exhibition Turning the Tide at New London Architecture, puts it:

"Tony Travers of the London School of Economics has described Thames Gateway as a ‘muddle of overlapping mechanisms’. Myriad organisations have an input into the development of Thames Gateway under the overall guidance of the Department for Communities and Local Government within central government. This list covers those connected with just the London end of the wider Gateway area and includes the interplay between local authorities, urban development corporations and local regeneration partnerships. "

Trying to read any coherent sense of a masterplan in the Thames Gateway is a tough exercise. There isn't even one coherent website for the Thames Gateway, just a lot of sites for the various development agencies each hawking the 'vision' for its own patch of turf. Surveyed as a whole, they run the gamut of the inept and the inane to the shockingly awful. If the online presentation of the Thames Gateway vision is such a dog's breakfast, what hope for any actual built form?

Thames Gateway - Estuary Park

Thames Gateway - Estuary Park

While he may have his detractors, Terry Farrell at least tried to bring some semblance of a grand vision to the Thames Gateway, and put landscape and nature at the centre of his masterplan vision (see also AR, Sep 2007). Farrell has been critical of an unfocused sprawl approach to the Thames Estuary, and instead favours concentrating the development closer to the centre of London, with 90% of the new housing proposed within the M25, leaving the outer limits as a new National Park.

While Farrell's plan ladles on the environmental buzzwords, promising 'eco-industrial parks' and 'sustainable floating islands', at its heart it provides a strong focussed vision that the current muddled approach sorely lacks.

Farrell's proposal, to more heavily urbanise central areas, building concentrated 'eco-cities' and leaving the outer gateway land largely undeveloped, is a heroic attempt to counter the prospect of suburban sprawl.

The current destiny of the Thames Gateway is as a new Los Angeles.

From Hodge to Hooverville

The madness of Margaret Hodge

Could Margaret Hodge be our very own Sub-prime Minister?

There are more insane ramblings from UK architecture minister Margaret Hodge in this weeks Building Design (20,03.2008). Cleverly giving herself enough rope to hang herself, BD invites Margaret Hodge to show them around her consistuency of Barking, East London, and see what kind of architecture she likes - "Now that’s what Margaret Hodge calls architecture".

She starts off well enough, criticising a spec housing development by Bellway homes, (albeit for reasons that should be within the council and planning departments ability to enforce):

"It's horrible, cheap housing with no facilities: no schools, no transport infrastructure, no buses, no shops. This is just want you don't want."

Then she starts to show a little of her own design 'vision', for the Barking Riverside masterplan:

"I don't think it works," she says. "There are enormous pedestrianised areas. They haven't integrated the housing properly. New communities only work if people have their own gardens, fenced off."

Now it's possible that Margeret Hodge has been feverishly reading nutters like Oscar Newman and Alice Coleman et al, or channeling the spirit of Jane Jacobs through a kind of New Urbanist distortion field, since landing in the poisoned chair at the DCMS in June 200. However, it's more likely that she has made this gross, sweeping statement off the top of her head. Margaret Hodge has nailed her colours to the mast of environmental determinism.

Barking Learning Centre

But the killer comes when Hodges takes BD to Barking Learning Centre:

Among her high points is Barking Learning Centre, formerly the central library, designed by Alford Hall Monaghan Morris. This mixed-use building, which is the centrepiece of Barking Town Square’s redevelopment, is an example of the government’s vision for integrated public spaces, with council services, a lending library, educational facilities and residential apartments all on the same site. Hodge is very proud of it.

"Look, a buggy park!" she exclaims, as we view the children's library, a book club meeting in progress. Hodge points out the "welcoming entrance", which she sees as friendly and inclusive, and insists there ought to be a coffee shop here too. Her only disappointment is that the flats have been sold to a buy-to-let investor. "There’s nothing you can do about that." [My italics].

There's the money quote. With one throwaway comment the UK's architecture minister washes her hands of the parlous state of the UK's housing.

Buy-to-let, where investors buy properties as a business venture and enjoy tax breaks, has completely altered the UK housing landscape over the last 10 years. Fed a diet of 'you can do it' property investment programmes such as Relocation, Relocation, Property Ladder and How to be a Property Developer, the middle-classes of England have been steadily sinking themselves in debt taking out multiple mortages and riding the milktrain.

But now the chickens are coming home to roost.

Writing in the Guardian, Sympathy for the buy-to-let devil?, (22.03.2008), Patrick Collinson states:

Lenders keep telling us Britain doesn't have a "sub-prime" problem like the US. Yes we do - in the shape of a million buy-to-let mortgages.

Collinson then details some of the scams and sharp practices that have dominated the buy-to-let feeding frenzy:

"On paper, you couldn't obtain a 100% mortgage for a buy-to-let. But developers offered fake 15% "discounts"; credulous surveyors gave fanciful valuations; lenders skimmed over loan applications. Hey presto, wannabe landlords were able to obtain an "85%" loan which was really 100% of the purchase price, and start building a "portfolio" without spending a penny upfront. And they didn't even have to pay tax on the income.

It wasn't much of a worry to the lenders that the whole thing might later go wrong. They could "package" or "securitise" the buy-to-let loan, mark it down as a profit and take it off their books. Only in the coming few months will we see where in the financial system the losses turn up.

Compare this with first-time buyers. They have to stump up a deposit. They have to prove their income. They have to make monthly mortgage payments from a taxed salary. There could only be one winner in such a one-sided game. With access to easy finance, the buy-to-letter could outbid the first-timer and push prices up to ever more ludicrous levels."

Now the bubble has inevitably burst, not only are tens of thousands of get rich quick investors stuggling to make interest payments on mortgages, but overstretched owner-occupiers are faced with large mortgage hikes, while the banks and financial institutions who have been ridden by this loa of greed and exploitation get bailed out by the Bank of England. As a nation we are overextended on credit per capita to a much greater extent than the US.

Barking Learning Centre, held up by Hodge as the shining example of urban regeneration in Britain, is actually just the mirror to the failed state of housing in the UK. Who will maintain the properties at Barking Learning Centre? What can motivate investors, who are losing millions of pounds on the empty promise of buy-to-let, to look after their properties and ensure that they are good places to live?

To bring it back round to Robin Hood Gardens, and it's recent threat of demolition, Amanda Bailieu states in her recent BD editorial:

As one would expect from this government, Margaret Hodge believes the newly built Barking town centre in her constituency offers a more hopeful model for the future of British housing than the rugged, generous and light-filled flats at Robin Hood Gardens.

And yet Hodge cannot find any housing in Barking that actually works.

Tent City, Ontario California


In the US, the credit crunch and the fallout from the subprime mortgage farrago is refiguring communities and the suburban landscape, creating new housing archetypes - subprime shanty towns and exurban slums. The death of the buy-to-let market in the UK could do the same in this country. Margaret Hodge could find herself with a Hooverville in the midst of her constituency.

What is needed, now more than ever, is a richer mix of housing types and typologies. This needs to encompass social housing, letted accommodation, housing associations and cooperative living, as well as owner occupied dwellings.

Instead of hanging round Barking, Hodge should try visiting Rotterdam.

The house in the middle of the M62

House in middle of M62

The story of these home-owner holdouts reminds me of the infamous house that sits in the middle of the M62, the motorway that crosses the Penines between Manchester and Leeds. At Stott Hall Farm, in Calderdale, the 3-lane east bound carriageway and 3-west bound carriageway split, each to take a different way around the farm. The story goes that the farmer refused to sell up, so the developers built the motorway around him.

House in middle of M62

House in middle of M62

However, according to the Wikipedia entry on the M62, this is an urban myth - the road splits due to the contours of the ground. But the coincidence seems too great, and besides, it's a much better story.

More on Stot Hall Farm here and there's a shockingly bad quality video of a BBC news story here.

House in middle of M62


Floating Cities 1




As part of an investigation of new urban typologies I am undertaking as part of TeamHelsinki for the Greater Helsinki Vision 2050 competition, I came across this scheme by the Mexican architectural practice Productora, on DomusWeb [via Dezain, inevitably]

This scheme, created for the competition from Arpafil, proposes floating an entire city block above the ground, in part of Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city.

The proposal echoes Corb's urban utopian ideals, of letting the landscape flow around and beneath the built form. But here it is also a programmatic and organisational tactic:

To be able to create new quality public areas in the city, we decided to elevate one of the city building blocks. The new ‘floating’ building provides the City of a new Centre for Dance and Audiovisual Media: a complementary new department of the University which is distributed through the historical centre. The elevated urban block allows us … (1) to create a new reference point in the monotonous and isotropic urban structure (2) to establish a dialectic relation between the historical plaza and the newly created public plaza (3) create views (´new perspectives´) over the very horizontal texture of the existing city - establishing a relation with existing monuments such as the Cathedral. We believe that the city of Guadalajara needs powerful interventions in the neighbourhoods surrounding the actual centre of the City, to convert the city from a uni-central into a pluri-central urban network. The new Centre for Dance and Audiovisual Media could be a first step into this development.

More at Productora's website.

Cities and Sand 2

The fractal dimension of the Gulf coast is increasing.

Dubai satellite view

Dubai satellite view

Inspired by the recent pamphlet, The Gulf by Rem Koolhaas and AMO, my current obsession is looking at the Persian Gulf coastline on Google Earth. The publication, based on the research presented at the recent Venice Biennale, (as mentioned in this previous post), seeks to analyse the remarkable development occurring along the Gulf coast:

"A coastal analysis reveals a new regional and global order of effort, conceptualization, and rivalry that needs to be acknowledged and investigate".

Whilst the great land reclamation projects in Dubai are the best known, such as the Palm Jumeirah, the Palm Jebel Ali and the bizarre World development, a closer look at Google Earth shows that all along the Gulf coast, man-made curlicues and geometric patterns are being created, little Julia Sets, increasing the fractal dimension of the Gulf Coast. The new Palm Deira, announced in 2004, will be larger than Paris. In total, the Palm islands will add 520km of beach to Dubai's coast.

One side of the concertina folding pamphlet is a composite satellite image of the Gulf coast from Dubai up to Kuwait, straightening out the curve of the land into a straight line. Onto this image are added images of future projects planned, proposed an hypothetical, from the emerging Palm islands of Dubai to the Pearl development in Qatar, new land reclamation projects in Kuwait City and Bahrain.

Abu Dhabi satellite view

Bahrain satellite view

Bahrain satellite view

But Google Earth replaces the uniformity of the Koolhaas satellite image (from Earthsat) with a stunning, interactive Suprematist composition of form and colour. The blocks corresponding to individual images have slightly different tones according to the time of day they were imaged, and across the landmass of the Arabia peninsular we can the traces of the satellite sweeps across the terrain. The brown and yellow hues of the desert contrast with the azures and lazuli of the sea. Zoom in and the image is blurred into an Impressionist canvas, an instant Monet. Slowly detail images, an island, a coastline, and then cities, roads, the trace of man:

"Sand and sea along the Persian Gulf, like and untainted canvas, provide the final tabula rasa on which new identities can be inscribed."

Zoom in on Dubai and the Palm islands appear, zoom closer and you can see the Burj al-Arab hotel, road networks laid out for future development. All along the coastline, SimCity is being played out for real.

In the article "Dubai's Satellite Urbanism", George Katodrytis describes how the UAE's Ministry of labor are using hi-res satellite images to monitor construction.

"There is a new type of urbanism: designing islands and coastlines visible from the sky, recorded by satellites and transmitted across the Internet as jpeg attachments. Technologies that are used to monitor wildlife development, hydrography and land drought is now a tool for global transmission of projects under construction. Post-card GIS and reconnaissance technologies turn into spectacle and telegenic fantasy addressing mass tourism. Dubai’s suburbs are rising from the water, in the form of artificial and prosthetic islands, imitating Venice. Dubai is turning into a postcard portrait city of the future. Satellite imagery of unfinished projects gives rise to the exciting promise of fantasy."

Dubai satellite view

But while developers and government agencies are using satellite images to design Dubai, Google Earth is also the ideal way to visit Dubai.

Dubai is the first city in the world designed to be viewed from space.


Cities and Sand

Rem Koolhaas at Venice Biennale

Over at the Venice Superblog are a number of great interviews with various architects and architectural thinkers from the Venice Biennale.

I was particularly taken with this interview between Rowan Moore and Rem Koolhaas, talking about Dubai and the Gulf states, not regarded as being of high architectural merit by the majority of critics, and thus an area of great interest for Koolhaas and his OMA/AMO consultancies. I love the way that Koolhaas refuses to be pinned down by Moore's line of questioning.

"..there is clearly a convergence between star architects and typical architecture also at work, and the obligation to extravagance creates an almost seamless and indistinguisable new breed of architecture."

I've transcribed the interview for anyone who's interested:

Rowan Moore: This is Rowan Moore talking to Rem Koolhaas in the United Arab Emirates room. Rem, what is this?

Rem Koolhaas: It's actually the Gulf room, it's a year between working in the Gulf, and once we started we decided to try get involved on many levels, and in many different places, and as we proceded, we were totally stunned by the discovery of the total and radical transformation of not only what is going on but the even bigger transformation that is beng plannned here.

And so what this does is completely document not our own work at all but the work of other offices, what their plans are and what the scale of the plan is and what the context is. And at the same time we were also surprised by the intensity of derision in architectural circles. There are some quotes there on the wall: [inadudible], "Lawrence of Surburbia", [inadudible], "Skyline of Crack"[?] and most damning of all "Disney meets Albert Speer"

Now that tone reminded me of the similar derision of Singapore, which was famously compared by William Gibson as "Disneyland with the Death Penatly". And so what I am trying to confront also is what the west is so contemptuous of it's own exports, it is clearly largely being done by Australian and Anglo Saxon architects, so we a huge responsibility. It's about what we define as public space, what we define as resorts, what we define as exciting architecture and so it is really confronting that contempt.

Also we did research and discovered that in almost all these cities very significant architects have been working like the Smithsons and Utzon in Kuwait, SOM in Saudi Arabia, and that they produced work there that is very respectable, very intelligent about climate envelope, and that there was a beginning of a tradition that has now been totally abandoned for totally unsustainable stuff, and what is finally coming is there is clearly a convergence between star architects and typical architecture also at work, and the obligation to extravagance creates an almost seamless and indistinguisable new breed of architecture.

RM: So if you are to be critical of the new work as not being sustainable, does that put you in the position of the other people who are critical of the western exports.

RK: Err, not exactly, because i think that part of our project will come in the form of our own projects, so we'll have the opportunity to do it differently, and clearly we'll try and connect into some of our impulses.

RM: But if somebody does suburbia or a skyline or Disney in the Gulf, does it become more or less interesting, than if it's done in the West?

RK: I'm not looking to compare them. I see it as a kind of endgame, of the architectural system, to the extent that the world is running out of new places to start all over again, so it has been China, and clearly China has been producing a number of very interesting architectures, but not a new architecture, and the same thing is going on here, even though in terms of opportunity it represents theoretically a vast site for inventing a new architecture.

RM: And how would you situate yourself in working here if everything is becoming a seamless whole, would you think of yourself as being part of that whole, or somehow finding an independent position?

RK: We try to maintain a critical and independent position, but of course we participate in the same opportunities, but increasingly I think that we are trying to outwit in the work and in the projects some of the more painful dilemmas.

RM: It's striking that in Dubai in particular is in a way a contrived situation, born of the policy of the ruling family of Dubai, as in their different ways have been Las Vegas and West Berlin in the past, which are other things which have fascinated you, Berlin as a whole. You could say these are esoteric conditions that are not so meaningful to the rest of the world, that they are abnormal, or do you think that their abnormality is something we can learn from in other places.

RK: Well I think it is very true that we could say it's an esoteric development which is irrelevant to other existing cities, but I would say it is a condition of the new, and the global condition of the new which by implication must have the interest and the concern of anybody who is interested in the future.

RM: So this is the future?

RK: It's on the way to turning out like this, but I guess there is some moral expectation that we come to our senses. Which is not to condemn everything that's happening, very clearly, because there are also very smart things.

RM: I know you wouldn't do that! Thank you Rem.